Whaar is da snaa o fernyear?

10 Apr 2012 in Robert Livingston Blog

We spent part of the Easter weekend in Ullapool and, even if there hadn’t been a persistent drizzle of that fine rain that soaks you to the skin, we’d certainly have visited, as we always do, the village’s two excellent—and complementary–bookshops, the Ullapool Bookshop and the Ceilidh Place Bookshop.

I firmly believe that the great strength of small and independent bookshops is that they bring to your attention interesting titles that you wouldn’t readily stumble across in Waterstones, or have recommended to you by Amazon. And so it was in the Ceilidh Place—I found a book I knew nothing of, Shetlander WJ Tait’s translation of François Villon’s ‘Testament’, published last year by the Hansel Press  which is run by an Orkney-based cooperative including the Shetland-born sculptor John Cumming. I’m pleased to be able to say that HI~Arts has been able to give both John and Hansel some support in the past.

Now I’ve had a mild fascination with the French medieval poet-rogue Villon ever since, as a child, I saw the wonderful Ronald Colman swashbuckler, ‘If I Were King’ (long overdue on DVD), and so the prospect of reading his poems in Shetlandic was both surprising and enticing. The introductory essays present a very interesting argument about the importance for a localised language such as Shetlandic to do more than just reflect, and comment on, the specifics of where it’s spoken—as most of Tait’s contemporaries writing in Shetlandic had done—but to engage with the international mainstream, and WJ (Billy) Tait, who died in 1992 with these translations unpublished, certainly does that.

It probably helps, as you read these poems, to be familiar enough with Shetland itself to have the sound of the language ringing in your ears, but even without that advantage, I’m sure the sheer rambunctious, energetic life force of the writing would come across vividly. I remembered how, without knowledge of Gaelic, I’d never been able to appreciate Sorley Maclean’s poems through his own (deliberately?) turgid English versions, until I read the lively translations into Scots by Douglas Young.

Regular readers will know of my, probably obsessive, love of the music-streaming service Spotify. The day after we got back from Ullapool, I logged on to an album by the Faroese composer and pianist, Kristian Blak. I’d come across his music many years ago when I’d been given two of his CDs by the Director of the Faroes Nordic House (and there’s another whole blog to write about the concept of Nordic Houses!). The album I chose had the intriguing title of Shalder Geo.  Now, I knew that ‘geo’ is the word in Orcadian and Shetlandic for a narrow inlet of water, and sure enough it turned out that on this disc Blak was mingling Faroese and Shetlandic tunes as his source material. The result was highly intriguing and affecting, reminding me sometimes of the best music of that influential Irishman, Michael O’Suilleabhain. This is one thing Spotify does really well—open doors to music that is at the same time both very local, and yet international in scope and appeal. After all, before heading for Ullapool, we’d had a little season of Galician folk music, courtesy of the Spotify ‘related artists’ function.

A couple of weeks ago two of our team had attended a Creative Scotland seminar on ‘International’ opportunities. They both found it a rather disappointing event, pitched at a very basic level. These two examples I’ve discussed here, that link Shetland to a much wider world, in both space and time, seem to me to offer genuinely intriguing models of ‘internationalism’. That is, they both spring from a state of mind that is open and outward-looking, not closed in and parochial.

Of course, these are just two examples that I’ve stumbled across in the past few days. I could also cite Stornoway-born writer Kevin MacNeil’s many links with Sweden  including his version of Torgny Lindgren’s play ‘Sweetness’ for Dogstar Theatre; or artist Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie in Gairloch who’s painstakingly developing an international artists’ residency programme Ceangal  with Indian-based artist Somu Desai; or the links with Norway and Bolivia (!) that will be explored in this summer’s St Magnus Festival on Orkney; or the extraordinary, ongoing international odyssey of Matthew Zajac’s play The Tailor of Inverness  .

As those introductory essays to Tait’s Villon poems remind us, there was a time when the seaways put Shetland—and much of the rest of the Highlands and Islands—at the centre of criss-crossing international networks. Now technology—Spotify, Youtube, social networking, even Amazon—is once again making the concept of ‘remoteness’ meaningless for artists who live—at least from the point of view of the Central Belt—‘on the edge’.

© Robert Livingston